Are you looking for a private school for your preschooler? Are you curious about what private schools may offer your older child that your local public school may not? Researching options online, calling campuses and talking to your friends are all pretty standard. But a visit—at least to those schools on your short list—should also be part of your plan. Luckily, many private schools offer open houses and other opportunities throughout the year for parents to check out their physical space, see teaching in action and meet key personnel in charge of operations.
The Austin area is home to a wide variety of private schools. The online resource “Private School Review” lists nearly 150 private schools located in Travis, Williamson and Hays Counties. While not an exhaustive list, the site provides a wealth of useful information about the schools registered with the site. It also has a handy “compare schools” function that can be helpful in narrowing down campuses to consider, contains links to schools’ individual websites and has information about events such as open houses.
There are many factors to consider when looking at a potential school for your child. General reputation, the ages or grade levels served, the location and the cost are bound to top the list. What type of accreditation the school has and how students typically transition to or from public schools are also important issues to consider. Other essential elements may include the school’s teaching philosophy, any special or unique programming and, if applicable, its religious affiliation. Roughly half of the schools listed by the Private School Review are religiously affiliated, most as Christian or Roman Catholic. It’s worth noting that such schools vary in the degree to which observance of specific practices or teachings is required—a factor you may wish to explore with any religiously affiliated schools you are considering.
Many schools offer or even require one-on-one meetings with prospective students’ families as part of application or enrollment. These are great opportunities to discuss your detailed questions and the individual needs of your child. Many schools also offer a schedule of tours or give tours by appointment.
Open houses, if available, can be a great starting point. You will get an overall impression of the school, benefit from hearing the general information presented and see the school in a relatively anonymous fashion before you are invested in a particular outcome.
Adriana Rodriguez, founder and head of the Austin Eco Bilingual School, says she holds weekend open houses three times a year for families wanting to check out her school’s north or south locations. Attendees get to see how the school—which serves infants through first graders only—is designed and organized; meetings and tours can be set up subsequently for interested parents.
At the Hill Country Christian School of Austin, a traditional open house is held once a year. The rest of the time, parents have on-going opportunities to visit in small groups and see classes in progress. These tours are not announced ahead of time, says Head of School Tim Hillen, which means prospective families are more likely to get an honest look at the school’s programs and operations. Hillen, a veteran administrator with over four decades of teaching and administrative experience, advises parents to check out classrooms, halls, the lunchroom and the bathroom to gauge their level of comfort with any campus. Parents visiting his school are encouraged to look into classrooms, ask questions and talk to students directly, he says.
Visiting the campus of a prospective school will give you a view of the condition, quality, spaciousness and design of the physical space. It can show you how well equipped the school is in terms of its library, athletic programs, computing and technology support, art, drama and music. Just as important, it will give you an idea of how parents and students are treated and how communication may flow once your child is enrolled. This may be conveyed in attitude and action as well as in words. How are questions answered? Is dialogue encouraged? Are teachers and administrators approachable? Does the school seem to have a robust process for handling parent questions and concerns as well as student needs?
Impressive facilities are nice. But at the end of the day, good communication and positive relationships among students, teachers, parents and administrators may be more essential to your child’s success and happiness at school, something that is best observed in person.
Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom.